In preparing for this drash I thought about its timing relative to the anniversary of the attacks of September 11. I remembered Eric Seder and the drash he gave last year, indicating that he had written one - and then written a second. The intensity of those days just a year ago - the weight of the loss - was palpable. How is it for us today? Is there a connection to our parshah? Perhaps in the opening words of the account of the Akedah. These days, we often hear the question posed - What does it mean to be living - Ahar ha-d'varim ha-aleh...After these things? How does crisis change us? Individually - collectively? As Americans - as Jews?
There are few stories in Torah more difficult for our modern sensibilities to get behind than the Akedah. Aren't we more comfortable with the words of Micah?
"Shall I give my first-born son for my transgression, the fruit of my belly for the sin of my being? He has told you, humanity, what is good, and what the Lord demands from you: Doing justice, loving mercy; and walking humbly with God." (Micah 6:6-8)
But these are not the demands Avraham encounters in the Akedah.
The Genesis account is only 19 verses. As terse and compact as a narrative can be. So to be sure every word counts. We begin by looking backward
"Vayahi ahar ha-d'varim ha-aleh v-ha-elohim nisa et avraham..." "And it happened after these things that God tested Avraham..."
After what things? The encounter with Avimelech...
The banishment of Hagar and Ishmael...
The feast that marked Isaac's weaning...
His miraculous birth...
Or after a 25 year saga?
It had been 25 years of life on the road, since, at the age of 75, Avram along with Sarai, a woman of 65, set out from Haran following the words "Lech Lecha m'artsekhah..." "Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father's house to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation..."
After all these things - Ahar ha-devarim ha-eleh - God sets Avraham on a journey with the same phrase - "lech lechah " This time not from someplace but toward... "el erets hamoriah - go forth to the land of Mori'ah." And this time, the command could destroy his future.
This place - Erets Hamoriah - introduces a linguistic theme of the akedah - the use of the Hebrew root designating vision and sight. Mori'ah is not derived from the root - but as with other biblical naming conventions - has a sound that echoes the root. So...Mori'ah and yira'e Avraham "saw the place from afar." Yitshak is told that God will "see to the sheep for the offering." In verse 13..."Avraham raises his eyes and saw and, look, a ram was caught in the thicket." Most significantly, in verse 14... "Vayikra Avraham shem ha-makom ha-hu YHWH yireh asher yey-amer ha-yom b'har YHVH yera'e." "And Abraham called the name of that place YHWH-yireh, as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord there is sight."
I have been quoting Prof. Alter's English translation of Genesis. In his note on verse 14 he writes, "The place-name means "the Lord sees." (YHVH Yireh) The phrase at the end means literally either "he sees" or "he will be seen" depending on how the verb is vocalized... It is also not clear whether it is God or the person who comes to the Mount who sees/is seen."
b'har YHVH - yera'e
b'har - YHVH year'e
This ambiguity preserves my own unease with the nature of the test.
What is its purpose?
What is meant to be seen?
Whose nature is on display?
We know the story as Akedat Yitskhak - the Binding of Isaac.
While Isaac is the subject of the title - interpretation and commentary - from the rabbis to Kierkegaard - have focused in their majority on Avraham. Akedat Yitskhak in its interpretive power is traditionally and most strikingly thought of as a test of Avraham's faith and obedience to the will of God.
Of course there is midrash on Yitshak - his experience of the ordeal, and the effect of the experience on the remainder of his life and his character.
In some commentary, Yitshak is killed and magically resurrected. So we find: "When Father Isaac was killed on Mount Moriah, the Holy One, blessed be He, immediately brought upon him dew and revived him." And in the Tosefta, "When Isaac was sacrificed on the alter, his soul which was in him in this world departed. But when Abraham said, 'Blessed be He who quickens the dead, his soul of the world to come - came back to him."
An important group of midrash and writings from the middle ages - commentary from times of intense persecution by the Romans and of massacres by the crusaders - see in Yitshak the model of the martyr - of the Jew who dies al kiddush hashem - for the sanctification of God's name.
And the midrash speaks of Sarah, left behind as Avraham, Yitshak and the lads disappear into the distance, Sarah becomes the real victim of the Akedah. In Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer and in Tanhuma, Satan appears to Sarah before Avraham and Yitshak manage to return. Satan toys with her. In the first midrash lieing to her about the death of Yitshak and in the second appearing before Sarah in the guise of Yitshak. Rashi notes "The death of Sarah is narrated directly after the Akedah because as a result of the tidings of the Akedah (refering to these midrashim) - that her son had been fated for slaughter - and had been all-but-slaughtered - her soul flew away and died."
Life is taken in crisis.
Is faith shaken in crisis?
Is faith strengthened in crisis?
And what accounts for the difference?
An Episcopal priest, a New Yorker said: "After September 11th God couldn't be counted on in the way that I thought God could be counted on. God was absent. I was left with that thing we call faith. But faith in what...I don't know."
Faith in what?
What sort of God would command a father to sacrifice his son? Let the father go through with the journey and preparations and then - at the moment when the knife is ready to make the cut - send an intermediary - an angel - to intercede?
And what kind of father accepts the command without objection? We want him to say "no." To argue - as he did for the sake of the righteous of S'dom and Gemorah. But he does not argue. It is a horrifying silence.
If the Akedah comes - as I was taught as a child - as proof that human sacrifice is not what God desires then why doesn't the Torah repudiate the practice there in the text. Certainly the akedah provides the opportunity to include this message? True, Yitshak is not sacrificed - he is replaced on the alter by the ram. But this is not at the direction of God or the angel - simply a substitution undertaken by Avraham.
The reasonableness of the test is never repudiated - by God or by Avraham. In fact, in isolation from the prophetic injunctions against human sacrifice, the Akedah leads us to believe that the God of Israel admires the practice as a show of true faith and obedience.
As a child, the English name for the Akedah that I was taught was "The Sacrifice of Isaac" - rather than "The Binding of Isaac." This name for chapter 22 of Genesis is from the Christian tradition. In fact, the story is often read on Good Friday, because it makes sense of - and affirms - the father who sacrifices His son.
As the angel says in verses 16 and 17: "Because you have done this thing and not held back your son, your only one, I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed as the stars in the heavens..." The covenental promise is affirmed specifically because of Avraham's willingness "to do this thing."
So he passes the test. What was his reward? In Bereshit, Avraham does not figure significantly again and God never again speaks to him. God's last words to the man described as his yedid - his friend - God's last words to Avraham are to offer his son as a sacrifice.
And Isaac, whose ashes the Rabbis say "remained piled on the alter," he is our impaired patriarch. Midrash Rabbah (Genesis 56:8) records that while bound to the alter, when it appeared that his father's knife would end his life, the tears of angels fell into Isaac's eyes - blurring his vision forever.
He was forever changed. Yitshak warrants few verses in the Torah. He strolls in the fields. He brings Rivkah into his mother's tent and takes her as a wife. He buries his father. He pleads with God to enable Rivkah to have children. He receives God's blessing and promise.
He favors "the wrong son" - Esav. For the wrong reasons - his cooking skills. And in his old age - with the help of Rivkah - he is duped. He is not a man of action. He is neither a wrestler nor a nation builder. He is the transition between Avraham and Ya'akov.
And did Avraham pass the test? Could he not have said, "No."
Textual critics point out that the command to sacrifice Isaac comes in the name of "Elohim." "V'ha-elohim nisa et Avraham." While the angel of the Lord who calls out to Avraham, instructing him not to harm Yitshak and a second time - reaffirming the covenental promise -- speaks in the name of YHVH. The angel is a "Malach YHVH."
A brief modern midrash by Bob Dylan: "God said to Abraham, go kill me a son. Abe said, Man, you must be putting me on."
But this was not Avraham's apparent response. But maybe this too is there in the text.
The beautiful paragraph that follows is from an essay by W. Dow Edgarton:
The story ends, but for the reader the rings begin to spread in every direction. Farther and farther they reach - spreading through the Bible, spreading through ourselves and what we know of the world, spreading through what we think and know (and think we know) of God. The rings grow larger and larger until they cannot be seen all at once, but only in small sections of an arc. We consider this question, formulate that problem, ponder one implication, probe another explanation - small sections of quickly retreating rings - until the distances grow too great, the connections too faint. Only in the story itself does it all hold. The story holds together what we cannot. When the threads break, we turn, therefore, and once again, begin to read.